This post contains the results of my quick internet research on the early history of brass knuckles in America. My curiosity was aroused after watching a television documentary made in 1999 about the Irish in New Orleans. In that documentary, the writer attributed the first use of brass knuckles in America to the Irish (not a direct quote). This evening I did a brief search of several internet sources to determine if this was a valid statement. Also, as an archaeologist I sought to determine if brass knuckles can be accurately dated, since they are occasionally found in archaeological contexts and archaeologists are always eager to identify artifacts that serve as time markers.
As expected, searching with Google.com, I met with several websites that tracked brass knuckles back to the Romans, and even the Greeks. The intermediate era, like the past 1500 years or so, were glossed over in these “histories’. The terms “brass knuckle” and “knuckle duster” (and various variants of these two concepts) were cited as early names for these items, along with some vague etymological link to the German language.
The earliest use of the term that I was able to locate using Google Books in Europe was in 1862, when The Archaeological Journal, an archaeological publication in the British Isles, published an article about a personal collection of armour that noted, “A pair of gauntlets is described in the next item, of ancient fashion, and with brass knuckles (condolis de latone). Examples are not wanting of representations of gauntlets thus ornamented in monumental portraitures, such as the effigy of John de Montacute in Salisbury Cathedral; he died in 1388.’ In a Computus of the Treasurer of the Dauphin, in 1333, a payment occurs for ‘guantis lattunatis;’—for a pair ‘de caligis de latono,”‘<fcc. These may, however, have been gauntlets wholly of brass, such as those still suspended over the tomb of the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral.” (The Archaeological Journal 1862: 163).
I then searched Google Books for earlier references in America and restricted my search to the 18th and 19th century. I was surprised to find that the term “brass knuckles” did not appear in a printed book until 1855. A similar search of 18th and 19th century newspapers contained in the archives at Genealogybank.com pushed the earliest reference to “brass knuckles” back to February, 1855.
The City Council of New Albany, Indiana noted in their proceedings:
“Mr. Weir offered the following.
Resolved, That the Committee on Ordinances beinstructed to report an ordinance prohibiting the carrying or using of instruments called brass knuckles.
Mr. Stoy moved to amend by striking out brass knuckles and inserting ‘any kind of concealed weapons,’ which amendment was lost.
Mr. Kent moved to amend by making the resolution read, ‘Brass Knuckles, Slung Shot, or other dangerous weapons;’ which amendment was accepted, and the resolution as amended adopted by the following vote…” (New Albany Daily Ledger 1855:2).
Then I discovered an antique brass knuckle collector’s group on Yahoo.com and I emailed one of their members, Daniel White, with an question about the origins of brass knuckles in America. He graciously provided a quick reply, in which he stated, “Some of the earliest ones I know of are the Sam Houston lead knuckles which are on display at the Sam Houston Schoolhouse Museum in Maryville, Tennessee. Apparently he was only at the school in 1812 and the knuckles(which have his name carved into them and appear to be handmade) were supposedly found hidden above the door frame during a renovation in the 1950’s. I also believe brass knuckles were brought over by Chinese immigrants during the early to mid 1800’s and I think these strongly influenced the style of the most common cast iron knuckles made during and after the Civil War.”
I signed up to join the Yahoo.com group and examined a series of uploaded photographs of brass, lead and cast iron knuckles dating to the Civil War era. Most of these were posted by Mr. White. They reflect a variety of styles. Thanks to Mr. White and his colleagues for furthering the history of this intriguing weapon type.
Civil War Era Knuckles, Courtesy of Daniel White.
If White is correct, this would push the begin date for brass knuckles in America back to 1812. If this is so, then why did it take the popular press in America four decades to final document these useful weapons of personal protection? Cleary, the 1855 city ordinance shows that public officials in this wild and wooly Ohio River town saw the need to regulate brass knuckles by 1855, which implies their presence for several years prior. The wording in their ordinance, however, infers a “newness” and relatively unfamiliarity with the term brass knuckles. Perhaps brass knuckles had been around for many decades but were considered vulgar items and not suitable for “polite society”, or the printed word. Perhaps they were hovering below the public radar, tucked inside the pockets of the men (and maybe even the women) who were busy populating the American heartland. Can these weapons be traced to the Asians, many of whom were being imported to America to perform manual labor? Or were they brought by Irish laborers from Great Britain? Or possibly both? Was the manufacture of cast iron knuckles an American innovation? And were lead knuckles the first type used in America? Were any used in the War of 1812, or in the American Revolution? Thus far, I have found no references to their use in those earlier wars.
Composite weapons that included Brass knuckles, knives, and/or handguns existed in America by the 1860s. Common phrases, such as “knuckle sandwich” “bare knuckles”, and “knucklehead”, may hide clues to this puzzle. By World War I, brass knuckles were a common weapon and effective in the trench warfare that characterized that war. Similarly, brass knuckles continued to be used as weapons in World War II. If these weapons were official weapons in the American Civil War, documentary evidence for it is elusive. Collector reports demonstrate that brass, lead or cast iron knuckles are widespread (albeit relatively rare) on battlegrounds in the South. Were these personal weapons sold by sutlers in the Army camps? Which examples were sand cast, possibly by the soldiers themselves, and which were cast at furnaces or forges? Were the lead examples made from melted bullets? Were they used by both Union and Confederate soldiers? The present contextual information for these battlefield relics do not adequately answer these questions.
My own archaeological research over the past 35 years has yielded only one pair of knuckles. This was a broken example made from cast iron that I recovered from a 19th-20th century house (Alma Boyd House) on the Sumter National Forest in Abbeville County, South Carolina. It came from surface context, so its age was unknown. Any other archaeologists who have encountered this tool type, please let me know. Clearly, more research is needed, and I hope to report back.
New Albany Daily Ledger
1855 Proceedings of the Council. New Albany Daily Ledger, February 7, 1855:2.
The Archaeological Journal
Original Documents. The Armour and Arms Belonging to Henry Bowet, Archbishop of York, Deceased in 1423, from the Roll of his Executors’ Accounts. The Archaeological Journal 19:159-163.